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Regal Iris

Satsuma buttons of the late nineteenth century depict the Japanese cultural love of the iris in all its colors
The beauty of the glass buttons capture the colors associated with the iris
The iris is THE plant of the Art Nouveau period on pearl, brass, and Japanese enamel
This modern beaded studio fabric created by Maryalice Ditzler grabs the color of the flower
The stands and the falls of the iris’ petals show in this modern shibayama with abalone and coral as well as the bone with a fabric frame
The modern scrimshaw on casein shows the beauty of the flower even in black and cream

One of the flowers found frequently on buttons is one of the four major flowers of the world—the iris.  With history dating back to Greek mythology, irises come in a rainbow of colors, the most popular being the deep blue variety. Their primary meanings include faith, hope, wisdom, courage, and admiration.

Irises are cultivated all over the world, and they can be found naturally in Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa, Asia, and North America.  The iris's history is rich, dating back to ancient Greek times when the Greek goddess Iris, the messenger of the gods and the personification of the rainbow, acted as the link between heaven and earth.  Purple irises were planted over the graves of women to summon the goddess to guide the dead in their journey. Ancient Egyptian kings marveled in the iris's exotic nature, and drawings have been found of the flower in a number of Egyptian palaces. During the Middle Ages, the meaning of the iris became linked to the French monarchy, and the fleur-de-lis eventually became the recognized national symbol of France. From their earliest years, irises were used to make perfume and as a medicinal remedy.

Irises are perennial herbs, growing from creeping rhizomes (rhizomatous irises), or, in drier climates, from bulbs (bulbous irises). They have long, erect flowering stems, which may be simple or branched, solid or hollow, and flattened or have a circular cross-section. The rhizomatous species usually have 3–10 basal, sword-shaped leaves growing in dense clumps. The bulbous species have cylindrical, basal leaves.

The inflorescences are fan-shaped and contain one or more symmetrical six-lobed flowers. The three sepals, which are spreading or droop downwards, are referred to as "falls.”  They expand from their narrow base, which in some of the rhizomatous irises has a "beard" (a tuft of short upright extensions growing in its midline) into a broader expanded portion ("limb"), often adorned with veining, lines, or dots. The three, sometimes reduced, petals stand upright, partly behind the sepal bases. They are called "standards.”  Some smaller iris species have all six lobes pointing straight outwards, but generally, limb and standards differ markedly in appearance. 

Irises have captivated the hearts of Japanese since ancient times. A native species called kakitsubata became popular because of an anecdote in the 10th century, "Tales of Ise."  It seems that an aristocratic poet, becoming weary of a fashionable life in Kyoto, set out on a long journey.  Arriving at Yatsuhashi (meaning 'eight bridges'), he saw irises in full bloom in a marsh crisscrossed with the eight bridges that gave the area its name. The sight filled him with longing for his wife far away, so he wrote a verse for her, beginning each line with a syllable from the flower name, ka-ki-tsu-ba-ta.  Ever since then, kakitsubata and zigzag wooden bridges have been linked as a motif in art, literature, and gardening.

Iris is also known as hanashoubu, hana meaning flower and shoubu meaning 'martial spirit' but also meaning 'victory or defeat' as in a match or a showdown. Designs of hanashoubu and dragonflies were stamped into tanned deerskin and worn into battle.  It was once believed that iris gave protection from the evil spirits that were abroad on the fifth day of the fifth month, and traditionally boys would bathe with the sword-like leaves on this day as the iris also symbolizes the warrior spirit. The iris is still displayed on May 5 as part of what was once Tango no Sekku but has now become known as Children's Day.

The appearance of the art and culture of Japan after the opening of the country in 1854 influenced everything in Europe in the 1870s. The Japonisme period set the stage for the development of a new style called Art Nouveau.   Irises were among the favorite plants of the Art Nouveau period, becoming almost emblematic of this new style.  The distinctive flowers and the vertical orientation of the stems were easily converted into abstract or symbolic shapes and were ideally suited to the Art Nouveau style.  Further, because the flower had been important in antiquity in folklore, medicine, and magic, it intrigued the artistic minds of the period.  The artists loved showing the variety of color, form, and style in its realism and abstraction.

Today the iris continues its popularity as an important symbol of strength and beauty.  It is the state flower of Tennessee.  The beauty of the iris remains a gorgeous addition to gardens, bouquets, and in the wild all over the world.



Green, Samantha “History and Meaning of the Iris,”


“Iris as a Japanese Motif,”

“Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Functionalism.”  Brohan Museum, Berlin.  Prestel Museum Guide. 


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